I hesitate to say too much about the plot of Yella, the psychological/corporate-business thriller directed by German director Christian Petzold, because so much of the film’s effectiveness and tension comes from watching events unfold.
I didn’t know much about Yella, except that I love the lead actress, Nina Hoss, she of the crazy expressive face, like a deer in the headlights. It is a pleasure just to watch her think, process, ponder. Petzold obviously loves her work, too: he has worked with her multiple times. Nina Hoss is perfect for material such as this: Her character’s lines are not often revealing or subtextual. The entire performance resides in the subterranean depths of the character’s personality.
Not knowing much about it was a good thing, because once you go to IMDB to check out the page for the film you will see people arguing endlessly in the message boards about what it meant, and what interpretation is “right” for the ending, etc. It’s that kind of film, with a big twist-ending reveal. I knew pretty early on that things were not what they seemed on the surface of it, and that is entirely due to the riveting performance of Nina Hoss in the title role, and also Christian Petzold’s elegant, spare, and captivating film-making. Petzold lets the camera hang back, he doesn’t too much with it, nothing too tricky, and that distance helps give the film its razor-sharp edge and unbalancing tension.
Yella is often quite scary, although you would be hard pressed to say why. Something is not right, you can feel it. The world presented is recognizable: roads, office buildings, hotels. But if you look closer, the frame is revealing more than it is saying outright. It’s like an echo of warning, a red flag going up in your unconscious, something you would do well not to ignore. Much of the film’s feeling reminded me of those times, rare (thank God), when I have found myself in what could be a dangerous situation. Yella didn’t remind me of the danger, but of the growing horrifying conviction I had that I could be in deep shit. Yella activates a serious fight-or-flight response, and it’s confusing, at first, because what we seem to be watching is a woman starting up a new job, and what can be more prosaic than that? It’s not confusing in a bad way. It’s confusing in an interesting way. The screen begs you to lean into it.
The opening scene is key and I kept flashing back to it. Yella is first seen on the train, changing her clothes in a curtained compartment. Next, we see her walking through a quaint town, with streets that appear to be deserted, or, more accurate, emptied out. (Most of the urban landscapes in Yella are completely emptied out, giving the film its eerie quality: Where the hell is everybody?) She is followed by a red car (colors are very important in the film), driven by a man who shouts out the window at her, “Yella! Stop! Let’s talk for a minute! Come on!” He gets out and follows along behind her. He is Ben, her husband, and he is played by the blonde and boyish Hinnerk Schönemann, in a very effective performance. Despite the fact that she won’t talk to him, he keeps talking, and at one point observes, “Your walk is different. You walk like you have a new job. Like you have somewhere to go.”
I thought of that comment periodically throughout the film, especially in moments where her walk changes visibly. Suddenly, her body is deflated and exhausted, she seems limp and aimless. Like many traumatized people, Yella sees the world as an isolated place, and sees herself as isolated within it. There will be no one there to help her, no one there to save her. And so she can barely drag herself along the sidewalk in those moments. But watch how Nina Hoss modulates this character detail. It’s subtle. Her character is working on you, the audience, as opposed to being presented to you clearly. It’s eerie. It makes you question what you are seeing, and with Yella, that is the name of the game.
Yella lives with her father in Wittenberg, in the former East Germany. I wonder if the geography of the film has more immediate resonance for Germans, but even I could understand the importance of what was happening for Yella on a socioeconomic level: She travels to Hanover for a job interview, and is hired by a big company for a trial period. Hanover, of course, is in the former West Germany, and it is still a big deal to move from East to West, it is still a giant jump in opportunity. Yella’s father is a rough-faced kind man, who works on his truck and cooks in a restaurant, and his daughter is an accountant, drawn to the corporate capitalist world: Progress. Hanover has always been a crucial city in Germany, with its airports and railways and centers of industry. Wittenberg, with its fields and hay bales and broken-down trucks in front yards and the faint hope that an airport will be built there, is a generation or two behind in development. So Yella could also be seen as representative of the striving middle-class, as well as the lingering damage done by the Soviet occupation. These events cast long shadows.
The plot moves as follows: Yella cannot shake Ben, and in the first 10 minutes of the film he convinces her to let him drive her to the train station to go off to Hanover. The two of them had started up a business together in Wittenberg, and things have gone south. Ben is being swindled by those pricing the computer network that he needs, and is short on cash. He is a ruined man, full of resentment, self-pity, and rage. Yella listens to his complaints, but seems more anxious to get to the station on time rather than console her agitated husband. It’s over between them. In a terrifying scene, Ben drives the car off a bridge, the car plunging into the water. The two escape the car and flop onto the sandy bank together. Yella sees her bags floating up to the shore, stumbles to retrieve them, and races off by herself, covered in sand and soaking wet, to catch her train to Hanover.
Once ensconced in the hotel in Hanover, her hair still a bit wet from her unexpected plunge into the river, she goes down to the hotel bar to have dinner. There, she becomes drawn into a nearby man’s screensaver, which shows giant crashing waves. He catches her looking, says, “Are you interested in balance sheets?” and then apologizes for being condescending. He looks almost exactly like Ben, the husband. But he is not. He is Philipp (Devid Striesow). He seems surprised to hear that she is going to work at the outfit that hired her: “They’re still hiring?” It’s an odd exchange, and Yella seems visibly rattled by it.
The next day, she reports to work only to find that the man who hired her has been escorted off the premises, and her job no longer exists. Disoriented, she goes back to the hotel. The hotel yawns with empty corridors. The place seems uninhabited. Yella is startled when Philipp enters her hotel room. “The door was open,” he said. He is a businessman, and has an important meeting the following day and needs someone who is conversant with balance sheets to accompany him.
We have barely been given enough time to recover from the car off the bridge moment before we are launched into the second phase of the film, which is the business dealings of Philipp, and then Yella. On the car ride to the meeting, Philipp coaches her. He says he learned most of these tactics from watching “John Grisham films”. She should only look at her screen, or look at one particular man in the group they will be talking to. If Philipp puts his hands behind his head, she should lean over and whisper something to him. It will disorient their opponents. He gives her a pair of glasses to wear. Yella is silent throughout the coaching. She is framed in the camera from the back seat, looking over at Philipp in profile. It’s an uneasy effect: we want to get a closer look at what is happening in the exchange. Not once does she say, or even seem to think, “Buddy, I know my job, do you think I’m an idiot?” She listens. She nods.
Yella is not just a good support system for the high-end corporate dealings necessary in the meeting, which play out like a very hostile game of mental chess. She takes over the meeting. She speaks to the three men across the table, asking them where they have hidden some of their cash flow, because it is clear, according to her balance sheet, that something is off. She expresses serious doubts about the solvency of their company, making everyone very defensive. Because Philipp had come on so strong in the car beforehand, I half expected him to chew her out afterwards. He had given her no license to speak, let alone to dominate. Instead, he says quietly, “I underestimated you.”
More meetings follow. Philipp has built tests into his relationship with Yella, a fact that unfolds gradually. He gives her a wad of cash to deposit, and there is 25,000 left over. Yella is busted by Philipp trying to send it off through the post in an envelope. Instead of firing her, Philipp listens to her as Yella opens up about her husband stalking her. She thinks Ben has followed her to Hanover. She came into her hotel room one night and found the bed slept in, and a leftover meal lying on the coverlet (a terrible moment). The 25,000 would help him get back on his feet. She confides to Philipp that she has a guilty conscience, not because she doesn’t love Ben, but because she left him upon his ruination.
Yella attempting to steal money that doesn’t belong to her gives us an insight into her character, as well as an insight into what Philipp sees in her. She busts him taking bribe money from one of their harassed clients, and he says to her casually, “I cheat, too.”
Meanwhile, there are creepy signs that everything is not right in the world. Yella knocks a glass of water off the table in one of the meetings, the glass shatters on the floor, and nobody seems to notice. Occasionally her ears ring so loudly she has to stop and press her hands in on the side of her head. Crows caw in the trees, and giant branches sway above, drawing Yella’s eyes up and around. Ben keeps appearing: one time, terrifyingly, he is in her room when she returns. There are recurrent images. Things repeat. Yella is in a loop. At one of the meetings, the client admits that their computer network is only worth 2,000, the exact number Ben’s computer network was sold for. Philipp displays frightening bursts of temper, like Ben, but he, unlike Ben, apologizes soon afterwards.
Something has been activated in Yella through her relationship with Philipp. Her place in the world is at gleaming board meetings, discombobulating the businessmen who underestimate her. She may have come from the downtrodden East, with only one business suit in her clumsy tote bag, but that is not where she belongs, she belongs in the intimidating all-male environment of corporate gladiators. The German businessmen, trying to plead their case to the cold-eyed duo opposite them, lose their way, repeatedly fumble the pass.
The film is slick and specific in its coloring: red is important. When it shows up, it’s a signifier. Everything else is in the dark greys and dark blues of the corporate world. There are next to no extras. Hanover is an unpopulated world. The hotel is empty. The streets and squares are empty. Yella and Philipp (and Ben) seem like the only people in the world.
The film is so relentlessly from Yella’s point of view that it is difficult to get a line on her and what she wants, who she is. That is Yella‘s greatest strength. It leaves great room for mystery and puzzlement, which makes the film tense as hell. The silences in the hotel room are vast, unendurable. The tension is often unbearable, and again, it is hard to point to why. Yella is a thriller, and thrillers are so often about creating the proper mood, more than anything else. Petzold creates mood like a master.
Nina Hoss is such an interesting actress. Yella seems quite cowed through much of the film, bursting into sobs on the train or in her hotel room, and trying to put a brave face on things when confronted with experiences outside her skill set (credit card not accepted at the hotel, etc.) On the flip side, triumphant and pleased smiles nearly burst out of her face when she and Philipp realize, again and again, that they have their clients in the tough spots where they want them. She’s ruthless.
Philipp stared at the pretty woman with the serious angular face in the hotel bar, and noticed how she kept glancing over at the crashing waves on his computer. Philipp saw this and somehow sensed a woman who would be willing to bend the rules, sensed a woman who would play the game as dirty as he played it. And she would do so enthusiastically, voraciously. She was born to it. I suppose it takes one to know one.
Never have balance sheets been so thrilling, in the truest sense of the word.